Olympus PEN E-PL1 review
The PEN E-PL1 is Olympus' newest Micro Four Thirds camera and the third retro PEN offering.
Rather than an upgrade to the previous PEN EP-1 and PEN EP-2, the E-PL1 is actually a pared down version of the other two, which is aimed at the beginner end of the photography market and is much more competitively priced than the previous pricey PEN models.
With the previous PEN models, Olympus was targeting serious photographers looking for a stylish and viable alternative to a DSLR, but with the PEN E-PL1 it's targeting compact upgraders who find DSLRs too confusing, but who still want a camera capable of producing excellent images.
Price wise, the PEN EPL-1 carries a launch price of £524, which is considerably cheaper than the launch prices of the PEN EP-1 (£699) and PEN EP-2 (£900).
At this price point we'd be expecting a well-built camera cable of producing high quality images with a strong feature set. As it's aimed at photography novices we also expect to see an intuitive and clear user interface, and some fun features too.
Looking at the Micro Four Thirds camera's specs, it looks promising: it offers a 12.3MP Live MOS Sensor, built-in Image Stabilisation, ISO sensitivity up to 3200, integrated flash, HD movies, 25 shooting modes and 6 art filters. Let's see how it fares when it's put to the test…
Olympus PEN E-PL1: Features
The PEN EPL-1 is a good-looking camera, styled like a 60s rangefinder camera, but not to the extent of the previous PEN models.
The camera is a nice size and fits well in the hands, and as it is a Micro Four Thirds jobby (avoiding the need for a pentaprism) Olympus is able to make smaller bodies and lens mounts which offer the same creative flexibility as a DSLR, but with a decent portability factor too.
Build quality is reasonable for a beginner's camera, but we'd expect it to be better for the price – although the body panel is metal, the back is plastic, which is a real shame and some of the buttons feel a bit cheap.
For the same money you'd have your choice of high-end full metal-bodied compact cameras from the top manufacturers, which is why we're a bit disappointed at this.
The PEN EPL-1's body, lens, user interface and Image Stabilisation system are all pared down versions of those found in the earlier, and much pricier, PEN EP-2.
This isn't a knock on this camera though - its feature set is actually very respectable.
The built-in Image Stabilisation system (ma. 3 EV steps efficiency) works really well: the supplied kit lens, although plastic, is a decent bit of glass and provides bright, sharp images, and the 2.7-inch LCD screen is plenty big enough.
The user interface is clear and easy to navigate, comparable to that on a decent compact camera.
Although the majority of features are pared-down versions of what we see on the PEN EP-2, Olympus have equipped the PEN EPL-1 with a few nifty features that it foolishly omitted from the previous Pen models; namely an in-built flash, which works very well. The camera also boasts a revision of the powerful TruePix V image processor.
Undoubtedly the best thing about the PEN EPL-1's feature set is that Olympus has succeeded in making a camera that's just plain great fun to use.
Mode wise, as well as Manual Mode, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program Mode, you get iAuto, which reads the scene and selects everything for you (in our test we found it pretty much guarantees accurately exposed pictures). There are also 19 scene modes which are easy to access and clearly labelled.
Setting the camera apart, though, are 6 different Art Filters: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Gentle Sepia. These are all great, they give excellent effects, which don't look like they've been done via an in-camera effect mode – they look authentic, rather than tacky.
The filter effects get applied before you take the shot, so you can check you like the look on the 2.7-inch LCD before you shoot.
Furthermore, when using the Art Filters you can still change settings like white balance, which is great for those who are getting into photography a bit more. We found the Art Filters to be a massive draw on the EPL-1, something Olympus were obviously hoping for, as they get their own setting on the mode dial.
The EPL-1 has an 11-point contrast detection autofocus system, which increases to 25 points when you turn Face Detection on.
As well as single autofocus, continuous autofocus and manual focus, the E-PL1 has S-AF+MF (simultaneous use of single AF and MF mode) and C-AF+TR (continuous autofocus, plus autofocus tracking). This C-AF+TR mode works superbly and, as it takes any focusing effort out of photography, is ideal for beginners.
We particularly rate the zoom frame AF button, accessed by the zoom button on the back of the camera, which allows you to check your exact focus quickly and easily.
The PEN EPL-1 is able to record high-resolution HD 720p 120 x 720 movies in 16:9 aspect ratio and standard VGA 640 x 480 movies in the 4:3 aspect ratio, both using the AVI Motion JPEG format at 30 frames per second.
The video quality is impressive, exceptionally so for the camera's price point actually, and we really like that you can use the EPL-1's Art Filters for video, as well as stills. The microphone is mono, rather than stereo, but if this is important to you, you can connect an external mic, so this shouldn't be a deal breaker.
The camera's C-AF+TR autofocus mode is also present for video. Use this and you simply have to lock the autofocus on your main subject and the autofocus target will follow the subject as it moves around the frame.
As video is such a plus point of the PEN EPL-1, we like the fact the camera has a new one-touch Motion Picture button on the back of the camera, for instant recording, although you can of course use the Movie option on the mode dial (and then press the shutter button to start recording).
Olympus PEN E-PL1: Image and video quality
The PEN EPL-1's 12.3 megapixel LIVE MOS sensor and TruePic image processor have proved themselves to be an excellent duo.
The Micro Four Thirds camera produced consistently great shots throughout our test. Noise is handled very well indeed, and is excellent up to ISO 1600.
In fact, the noise perforance is comparable to that of its higher-end Pen siblings. White balance readings are accurate and the default colour (the EPL-1's default setting of Natural picture mode) is vivid, yet not unnaturally so.
All of our test shots were shake-free and the built-in Image Stabiliser proved itself to be a useful addition.
The images that come out of the PEN EPL-1 do require a bit of sharpening at edit stage as they are a tiny bit soft, but no more than average, so although it's not something to mark the camera down for, it's worth mentioning as it's not a plus point.
Olympus PEN E-PL1: Verdict
The Pen E-PL1 concept is fairly straightforward – it's a stripped down, easier-to-use version of a high-end camera which can be sold significantly cheaper.
It's not the sexiest camera ever, but it really works. Olympus has succeeded in streamlining the PEN E-P2's feature set, while still building a camera with a strong purpose in its own right, which produces excellent images and is fun to use and easy to get creative with.
The PEN E-PL1 isn't a cheaper alternative for anyone who wants an E-P2 though – serious photographers will find the compact camera style press happy interface frustrating and will most likely regret not forking out for the better feature set.
Compact upgraders who don't want to make the DSLR jump will love it though.
It's worth getting an Olympus EPL-1 instead of a decent compact camera just because the image quality is really good, and as it's so much fun to use, it'll encourage you to take more pictures.
We love the different modes and creative options, especially the Art Filters, which make taking uber creative looking images a cinch.
The autofocus system is to be commended, on both stills and video, and the HD function itself is another great reason to buy this camera – you're getting a lot of video for your money with the E-PL1.
The toy-like buttons and cheap feeling (although robust) plastic let down the PEN E-PL1's aesthetics and feel, which is a shame as the other two PEN models are exceptionally high quality.
The price still seems a bit steep, when you consider you can get an entry-level DSLR cheaper too.
If you want minimal effort, high quality, creative photographs from a portable camera with the option of interchangeable lenses, then you'll love the Olympus PEN. If you're a serious shooter who wants a PEN, don't buy it, you'll be frustrated with its clear beginner bias.
- Art filters are great
- Built-in flash
- Excellent image quality
- Good low light performance
- Build quality is questionable
- Still expensive